Cynthia Soria was looking forward to starting college and advancing her career plans.
But, despite living on Hilton Head Island since she was a young girl, Soria discovered she could not get in-state tuition or a state scholarship. Why? Because she is a recipient of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Unable to afford college, Soria now works at a CVS pharmacy and has decided she wants to become a pharmacy technician. Then, she learned she couldn’t get the necessary state license because, again, she is on DACA.
So Soria, along with about 70 other so-called “Dreamers” and their allies, crowded into the lobby of the S.C. State House Wednesday to ask lawmakers to pass a bill that could unlock the door to their future.
State Rep. Neal Collins, R-Pickens, has introduced legislation that would allow DACA participants – who arrived in the country as children without legal documents – to pay in-state tuition at S.C. colleges, apply for state-sponsored scholarships and receive professional licenses from state boards.
Currently, Dreamers with federal DACA protection can attend S.C. colleges and universities. But they are not eligible for state-sponsored scholarships that other S.C. students can get. Instead, they have to pay tuition at the same rate as an international student.
When they graduate, the DACA students discover they can’t work in any profession that requires them to be licensed by a state board — from nursing to cosmetology.
At least 187 DACA recipients applied for state licenses from 2013 to 2017, the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation says. All were turned down because of their immigration status.
“From a conservative standpoint, it doesn’t make sense to invest in many of these kids in K through 12, only to obstruct them,” Collins said. “It hurts them, it hurts us, and it hurts our communities.”
Soria hopes her story and the stories of other Dreamers could convince lawmakers to give them a chance.
“I could go to college, pursue a career,” she said. “There are so many things I want to do.”
The fate of the federal DACA program is still up in the air. President Donald Trump has promised to end the program by March 5, and Congress thus far has been unable to agree on a permanent replacement.
But Rep. Collins expects Congress to settle the issue somehow. Even if it doesn’t, any students currently in the program will keep their DACA status for another two years.
“For the next two years, we will have 50 or 60 high school graduates across the state on DACA,” Collins said.
Fernando Baires is one of them.
The Dorman High School junior wants to work as a building contractor, which would require him to get a state license. Also, he says he would struggle to afford tuition without assistance at Clemson University, the only S.C. college that offers the courses he needs.
Already, Baires says he has watched his older sister study cosmetology and, then, struggle to find work.
“We’re not just here for us, but for the generation after us,” he said.
Steven Tapia knows first-hand how important legal status can be.
Tapia came to South Carolina from Ecuador as a child along with his mother and older brother. When his mother married a U.S. citizen, 17-year-old Tapia was able to qualify for legal status as a minor.
But his brother, already an adult, remained undocumented.
“My brother thought it was unfair,” Tapia said. “I got a (driver’s) license and he couldn’t, and everybody knew he was older. So how do we explain that?”
The issue drove a wedge between the two brothers until DACA came along.
“Now he’s got a job, a license, his own place, a car. He’s made leaps and bounds,” Tapia said. “And we’re closer. There’s no longer a weird vibe between us.”
The Dreamers are hopeful the Legislature can help them continue that progress – and that a federal fix will let them keep what they already have.
“We want the same opportunities that others get,” Soria said. “And we’re ready to fight for it.”